Northshore Utility District Case Study
Northshore Utility District boosts reading efficiency by more than 900 percent, while improving customer service
ROI, reliability and ease of installation are key factors in selecting new AMR system
When Northshore Utility District began searching for a new meter reading solution in 2006, achieving a strong return on investment was a critical factor in its selection process. After experiencing significant difficulties with another Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) system it had chosen several years earlier, the district determined it would need to make a change to improve efficiency and accuracy.
Located about 10 miles northeast of Seattle, Wash., Northshore Utility District is a special purpose district for water and sewer, serving nearly 70,000 people with 21,000 water connections. Water is purchased from Seattle Public Utilities and stored in eight water storage facilities with a combined capacity of 29 million gallons. It operates 15 lift stations, 267 miles of water main, and three water pump stations. The district is governed by a five-member Board of Commissioners.
According to Commissioner Bruce Gardiner, when the district decided to replace its system, it conducted a thorough evaluation of different solutions and ultimately chose the Badger Meter ORION® CE Mobile AMR system, because of its dependability and ease of installation. And in just 16 months, the decision is paying off. Northshore completed deployment of its new AMR system in July 2012 and immediately realized a 900 percent improvement in reading time.
Finding a more effective solution
When Al Nelson joined the utility as operations director in 2006, it was about 15 percent deployed with its previous AMR system. “We were having a lot of issues with the system . . . high equipment failure rates, mismatched meters and registers, and poor product reliability,” says Nelson. “It was taking longer to read the AMR system than the manual system. We really wanted to make it work, but after many months of trying to resolve the issues, we decided to move on.”
Nelson says it took the district a couple of years to assess the options, select the best solution, and plan the installation and deployment. “Value and return on investment were really important factors in the board’s selection process,” says Nelson. “In addition to meeting with manufacturers’ representatives and local distributors, we spoke with and visited other special purpose districts and cities to learn from their experiences and determine whether AMI or AMR would be the best alternative.” Northshore Utility District boosts reading efficiency by more than 900 percent, while improving customer service.
Commissioner Gardiner explains why the district opted for an AMR system from Badger Meter: “The terrain is just hilly enough that it could create reading issues for an AMI system. And we prefer to use a drive-by system anyway, because we want to keep an eye on the meters and the area around them for maintenance purposes as well as to maintain a customer service presence. It is also the best choice for us from a fiscal perspective.”
The district prides itself on being an efficient operation, so a key objective of the upgrade was to improve reading time. In addition, they evaluated whether it would be prudent to handle installation themselves or to work with an outside contractor. “We wanted to use a proven technology that is backed by a very stable company,” says Nelson.
“We considered the option of contracting the water meter installation portion of the project. After interviewing an experienced contractor and analyzing the cost, we decided to handle installation ourselves. The contractor claimed to have deployed a large variety of systems, and they told us that the Badger Meter system was one of the easiest out there to deploy.”
Smooth installation process
Between March 9, 2011 and July 9, 2012, the district installed 21,000 new meters and endpoints. The components of the new system include Badger Meter Recordall® meters equipped with Absolute Digital Encoder (ADE) registers and ORION AMR radio frequency transmitters, two Panasonic® Toughbook® laptops with the ORION Global Positioning System for reading, ReadCenter® Analytics data management and billing software and four ORION Trimble® Ranger handheld computers for troubleshooting.
The project was slated for 24 months, but the team was able to complete it in 16 months, just two-thirds of the estimated time. Nelson attributes the success to teamwork, communication and developing a 24-step process for installers to follow. The installation was a group effort that touched just about everyone at the district office.
“It wasn’t just operations. Our engineering, administration, fleet, IT group, and inventory controller got involved too,” says Nelson. “We made it the mission of the entire organization so that everyone was vested.”
Badger Meter provided the tools for an automated inventory process that helped Northshore streamline its installation process. This included providing an electronic database with each meter shipment along with providing barcode labels on the products that were used to ensure accuracy of the meter data.
Because the district has a mix of different types of boxes and lids – some that are designed for AMR with a hole in the lid for the antenna and others without the hole – Nelson initially thought a fair amount of meter box work would be required.
“We didn’t need to change out very many lids, because we were able to mount many of them with the antenna under the lid,” explains Nelson. “And the profile of the Recordall meter fits our boxes really well, so we were able to easily change out the old meter without any of the height issues that we had run periodically into in the past,” he adds.
Significant improvements in reading time, leak detection and customer service
Northshore reads its meters in four routes with approximately 5,000 meters each. Prior to deploying the ORION system, reading time was 70 to 75 man hours per route. Today, it has reduced that time to 6 to 9 hours per route – more than 900 percent faster and the routes are not yet fully optimized. This increased efficiency enables staff to dedicate time to other important maintenance and customer service issues. Nelson says because ROI is a constant focus, he planned ahead from a staffing standpoint, reducing the team through attrition and then running the department lean.
In addition to improving productivity, the ORION system helps with leak and tamper detection. Before each reading cycle, the billing department runs a report that flags accounts with continuous usage. Then, the meter reader can follow up and check that meter to determine whether there may be a leak. If a leak is suspected, the customer is notified. There are also codes programmed to indicate if a meter has been disconnected or is stuck.
The ORION system also has a data profiling feature that stores meter data for extended periods, enabling the utility to provide more detail for customers with high usage complaints.
“It is probably one of the most valuable features we’ve seen,” says Nelson. “We’ve used it quite a bit. When a customer has an issue with a bill or their usage, we can go back out and pull the data profile, which even graphs their usage, to pinpoint the days and times of high use. So far, it has diffused every complaint.”
Additional benefits of the system are 100 percent reading accuracy, improved reader safety, and less wear and tear on vehicles.
Nelson concludes, “We are extremely pleased with the results of the new AMR solution. We believe we received exceptional value and a very stable system.”
ORION CE AMR System